Review by Kathleen Campion

“War is Hell!”  The Warriors did the 2003 album; Audie Murphy narrated the 1963 film; and the expression itself dates at least to Civil War Gen.William Tecumseh Sherman, who had plenty of firsthand experience with the subject.   Now Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait, off-off Broadway at the Judson Gym, takes a shot at the concept.

The press release sums up the plot this way:

Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait, takes place in the not-so-distant future; two American soldiers wait at a worn-down outpost in the desert. Hot and bright. Hallucinatory hot. The world has been ravaged by war, its natural resources stripped and it is no longer clear if there is an enemy left to fight or anything left to fight for.  They wait.  For orders, provisions, a sign of life.  For rescue.  Even for death.

There will be three soldiers but we start with two at the worn-down outpost. Leadem (Brian Miskell) and Smith (Seth Numrich) have already gone a bit mad under the desert sun.  They’ve lost track of the days.  Smith is a dervish of physicality—bounding, jumping, shadow boxing.  He is awash in testosterone and sweat.  Leadem is a kid and Smith’s foil.  The kid is smarter, warier—and afraid of Smith.

I hate audience participation.  I honor the fourth wall.  So when Leadem, crazed and threatening, stalks noisily into the audience, I’m not happy.  He is very convincing at first; then, just annoying.

The playwright’s device for bringing these already-desperate men even worse news than no-one-is-coming-with-supplies, is to have another desperate soldier stagger into their outpost, announcing the whole world has blown up, and everyone is dead.  Chris Stack is that soldier (Miller).  He is Everyman, presumably a balance between the lunatic Leadem and the cerebral Smith.

Women rarely have much to do in war scenarios.  Here there are two, the rape victim and the Mom.  Jelena Stupljanin, plays the victim, disarming us in the first few minutes of the play, screaming at us from the darkness in Serbian.  Her rage and hopelessness transcend language.  Before she slips into English, we understand her fate. Clearly all the characters are victims, but she is in a special circle of this hell.  She is being kept alive solely to be raped and raped again by the American soldiers.

The Mom (Kathryn Erbe) comes to us in soldiers’ hallucinations as does the young brother.  Erbe is fragile in her loss.

The program promises the running time of only 90 minutes.  I checked my watch repeatedly and it was only 90 minutes—but it seemed much, much longer.  I suppose that’s an artistic thing.  The play and players made us feel the ponderous tedium and absolute futility of war.  On this point, “Bravo!

Late in the extended death scene, the soldiers, having long given up hope of rescue, wait for the desert heat to kill them.  The most appealing of the three leads, Miller (Chris Stack) says, largely to himself “I hate waiting here.”  I had all I could do to stifle the impulse to shout out: “Me too!

The set is the most ambitious I’ve seen in this unique space.  Raul Abrego managed an actual desert outpost with lots of actual sand. There is a good deal of credible roughhousing among the men, choreographed by Unkledave’s Fight-House.  The two, set and choreography, come together in a bizarre scene.   Three of the soldiers run, stop, skid toward the audience, then run back to center stage to start again.  The sand and soot rise high.  The air is thick with desert dust.

While I will salute the dramatic impact of forcing the audience to literally “breathe in the desert war,” I will admit that, had I been near an exit, I would have exited.   And so, it is fair to say that Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait imposes the tedium, fear, aggression, bullying, murderous rage, and terror of war on the audience.

Escalating the time-tested and worthy message, that war is indeed hell, to an absolute conclusion, much like the post-apocalyptic 1959 On the Beach, somehow minimizes what has happened in recent real wars – Afghanistan, Iraq.

I wish I could say Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait is “heavy sledding but worth the slog.”  It’s not.

Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait by Daniel Talbott; directed by Daniel Talbott.

WITH: Jelena Stupljanin (Serbian Woman), Seth Numrich (Smith), Brian Miskell (Leadem), Jimi Stanton (Brother), Kathryn Erbe (Mom), Chris Stack (Miller), Andy Striph (Soldier 4), Stephen Dexter (Soldier 5).

Designed by Raul Abrego, costumes by Tristan Raines, lighting by Joel Moritz, sound by John Zalewski, projection by David Tennent, and choreography by Unkledave’s Fight-House.  Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Piece by Piece Productions.  At the Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street.  Through June 27th.  Running time: 90 minutes.